In Her Shambles

Elizabeth Parker
Publication Date: 
Monday, April 30, 2018
No votes yet

‘Wonderfully lucid and economical... precise and delicate in its use of language’ – Andrew Taylor

'This is a radiantly-written and vigorous collection by a rising star of British poetry.’
– David Morley (winner of The Ted Hughes Award)

‘Vibrant, thriving ... To me, this book elevates, celebrates women’ – Wales Arts Review

‘Hers is a dexterous poetry of confidently conjured atmospheres and moods, at once elusive and heady with lyric invention. She has a canny way with the repeated phrase and a technical control that's impressive yet lightly worn . Parker's debut is, without doubt, a fine thing to be both celebrated and admired.’
– Martin Malone, 
The Interpreter's House

In Her Shambles is a celebration of women, families and nature, astonishing in its originality’ – SkyLightRain

In Her Shambles is Elizabeth Parker’s first full collection of poems. From the first poem ‘Crockery’, where a potential lover, in surrealist fashion, seems to fragment into reflections on a dinner table, we have a key to this author’s style: verb-rich, active, observational, things-seen-aslant. Poem two gives us more clues: the engaging metaphor of a father as a ‘rescuer’ is played out. Parker likes to regularly burst out of the one-page lyric, and often extends her metaphors over two or more pages. With more ground to cover, she can vary her physics from minute inspections to eagle-eyed overviews.

There is a visceral quality to the imagery: we are revealed and celebrated as creatures of the body: of flesh, blood, bone and ‘juices’. In the marvelous ‘Rivers’, family members are assigned their own distinctive bodies of water: “My sister’s brook is root beer with rot/ the dead giving up their tannins/ letting riches from their skins…”. There is a poem where two women on a bus examine and comment upon their aging hands and there is also a long poem, ‘Manus’ that is an intriguing and amusing investigation of the hand and its role in human history.

Heroines of various sorts often appear in these poems, most pointedly Lavinia from ‘Titus Andronicus’ (which might well rival ‘Macbeth’ as Shakespeare’s equivalent of a slasher-flick). Parker appropriates this outrageous tale and re-imagines it with an empowering twist: Lavinia will now not be stopped from pulling the stitches out of her tongue and trying to write using her own blood as ink. In ‘She Paints Him’ a man is subject to ‘the female gaze’ and he must take on the colours she picks. But these poems are less self-consciously political and feminist than they are carefully empathetic and human.

Likewise, in certain poems like ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Sand Cat’ there is a surrealist overlap between imagery from the natural world and the human/animal interactions. The result is an artful enactment of paradox and mystery. We must imagine ourselves with the intruder who breaks into a shed for shelter, as well as the mysterious cat whose reflections inhere in the landscape.

In Her Shambles is a notable debut from a talented young author.



Review by Rosie Jackson, Ink Sweat and Tears

Monday, October 29, 2018

This is a book of translucencies. Nothing is over-solid or overstated, nothing prosaic, yet the poems have an energy and exactness that capture relationships, places, people with unusually fine detail. Take the opening poem, ‘Crockery’. The ‘you’ it’s addressed to, never named, could be a lover, friend, anyone, but instead of being described directly, they are seen aslant, summoned by their reflections in chrome and crockery, their lip marks on a glass.

‘The wine glass has peeled a crescent from your mouth
each crease ridging the grease. I can’t look at you.’

This sets the tone for the whole of this debut collection: unexpected, lucent, precise, sharp, inventive, daring, controlled, but never heavy handed. The touch is so deft you almost think it happens by accident, then you realize how carefully crafted the poems are, and it comes as no surprise to discover Parker has a first class degree in literature and creative writing from Warwick University and an MA in mythology from Bristol. Her learning comes through in literary allusions: Titus Andronicus, Thomas Chatterton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but they are woven with skill, the learning never intrudes.

From Titus Andronicus, for example, Parker takes the story of Lavinia, raped then mutilated by having her tongue cut out and hands amputated so she can’t utter or write the names of her attackers. But in Parker’s beautiful reworking, in ‘Following Lavinia,’ ‘Lavinia Writes’ – and perhaps implicitly in the last poem in the collection ‘Writing him Out’ – these outrages are dealt with by a mute resistance which will not give up, the language lyrical and far-reaching.

‘They took her tongue, her hands
so she tried to write with driftwood, sand.

The sea was too strong
her words little caves water curled up in
blunting their edges.

She tried to speak again
carved deeper.’ (from ‘Following Lavinia’).

The feminism here is implicit, understated, finding a louder voice in ‘Lavinia Writes’, where the whole story becomes a parable of the silenced abused woman trying to find a language.

Other characters include a piper in Edinburgh playing Kavanagh’s On Raglan road, a piano tuner, various relatives and friends treated as water in the lyrical ‘Rivers’, but most of the figures in these poems are unnamed. ‘Woolworths’ evokes a woman through personal memories, caught in strong images, but we never know who she is. There’s a female stranger on a train in ‘10.30 To Severn Beach’. Another unnamed woman makes a white vase that seems to speak of her attempt to create and keep something beautiful, pure, inviolate. Again, images capture delicately thin yet telling slices of life. But identities, plots live under the surface. Parker never makes the mistake of milking things for meaning. She doesn’t labour points, doesn’t draw out morals, knows when to stop, when to leave the phase or the poem to stand for itself. All is oblique, hinted at, told slant.

Nor is there any one poetic form, nothing is allowed to solidify into a predictable form or shape. Instead there’s a dextrous mix of mostly 2, 3 and 4 line verses, with minimal punctuation, the text unassuming but contemporary on the page.

In the simply named ‘Lizzie’, Parker splices together the process of deleting and editing word files with Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhuming his late wife Elizabeth Siddal’s grave in Highgate so he could publish the poetry he had buried with her. Parker has researched this in detail, but refrains from writing a predictable narrative of re-enactment, instead breaking up the story with contemporary touches to create a reflection on the process of textual deletion and retrieval.

Biography isn’t always relevant, but the fact of Parker growing up in her parents’ garden centre in the Forest of Dean is surely an influence on the way she writes with such wonderful detail about the green world. There are plants, sunlight and water, a love of nature that is earthed as well as transcendent, an intuitive connection to roots, bulbs, soil, magnolia, spades, fern fronds, what lives on the surface and what lies beneath, all that is burgeoning, blossoming, seeding, lying in wait. Here too, Parker knows how to see what is out of the frame, beyond our usual way of seeing.

I should add that the book is also beautifully produced, as we have come to expect from Seren. The front cover collage by Maria Rivans, showing the head of Audrey Hepburn sprouting a surreal fascinator of birds, boats, moths, flowers, ferns, zebras, prams, women, is exquisite and utterly apt.



Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In Her Shambles is a misnomer. Virtually nothing of a shambolic nature is to be gleaned from the women occupying Elizabeth Parker’s debut poetry collection. On the contrary, we encounter female beacons of self-control, confidence, woman-to-woman solidarity. Women are integral, propping up the book’s spine with poise and the occasional on-point put-down of a ghostly “him”. For me, this book felt like an ode to women’s togetherness in every sense.

More than once, Parker actively seeks to embolden established literary female figures. First, she prises Shakespeare’s Lavinia from the canon’s clutches. Lavinia, who in Titus Andronicus suffers the mutilation of her hands and tongue by her rapists, features in two poems; the first of which infuriated me until I reached the latter. In ‘Following Lavinia – IV. Their Names’, Parker renders useless the means of communication that the playwright had afforded her: writing with a stump held in her mouth. Yet in Parker’s first Lavinia poem, nature works against her:

The sea was too strong

her words little caves water curled up in

blunting their edges.

The poem ends:

The sea was proud with storm

… a  nonsense of weed

silenced the sand. 

Thirteen pages later, Lavinia makes a surprise comeback, and finally ‘Writes’. The first-person narrator in this poem scrawls sentences ‘bright, long’ over chairs, walls, and floors; she tears at the “stitcheries”; she watches a “plughole suck pink water” – an image that saunters back in the very last lines of the book. Though repeatedly sewn back up, Lavinia concludes, triumphant: “I tear more, free more / until I am fluent.” 

In this poem and in many others, Parker plucks various images and words planted elsewhere in the collection. Three words, “breach the dam”, appear in both ‘Lavinia Writes’ and the poem that follows, ‘Dry’. The first refers to an unleashing of words; the second to the throes of a love affair. The pages of In Her Shambles form a slick assembly line of continuously recycled items. As mentioned, the plughole resurfaces as a tool in the final poem, ‘Writing Him Out’. Here, it “glugged” down the remains of one of Parker’s vague males. A mudlark would find a whole host of treasures swept in recurrently: bladderwrack, garlic, fallow deer, cutlery, shadows on walls, clay, to name a few.

A pattern among my favourite pieces in Parker’s collection is a dual framing technique, flitting from stanza to stanza between two connected lenses. One such poem, ‘Manus’, gravitates back and forth from an article about an executioner in the The Observer on the poet’s lap to her partner playing the piano across the room. The mirroring aspect lies in the use of their hands (manus) in their endeavours. For me, the collection’s pièce de résistance is ‘Lizzie’, a poem that draws parallels between Rossetti’s exhumation of his muse (by which he reshapes her according to his desires) and the writer digging out old emails, texts and call logs from an ex-partner. Both Rossetti and Parker are recalling lost loves: one through Pre-Raphaelite “lyric” and “metaphor”, the other through SIM cards and Times New Roman.

To close, back to the beginning – the cover image, by Maria Rivans, is a beautiful collage of animals, flowers, people, vehicles spiralling out of Audrey Hepburn’s head. This, while bordering on a little cluttered perhaps, again doesn’t resemble the abject disorder we might expect from the title – it is vibrant, thriving. And Parker’s poem ‘Blooms’ gives weight in words to the positive impression cast by the cover: “While he stayed shut, her throat bloomed / long-stemmed flowers”.

So, a shambles this collection is not. To me, this book elevates, celebrates women – Parker almost does it an injustice by ‘shambolising’ in its naming. This is a confident, measured debut; and while I wasn’t wowed by every page, the star poems of In Her Shambles dazzle enough for the collection to emit an exceedingly warm glow.

Review by Fiona Owen, Gwales

Monday, July 30, 2018

From the first poem in this impressive debut collection, there is a sense of mastery, of language taut yet tensile, of breath-taking imagery. The opening scene in ‘Crockery’ presents someone the speaker can’t look at, someone who we glimpse through fragmentary reflections in ‘glass, chrome, china’, the ‘pale glaze on white plates’. ‘I can’t look at you’ is repeated, accentuating the drama taking place, something edgy across a table, a domestic scene that seems to have gone wrong. The speaker’s gaze is averted so that, ‘Instead, I watch your coffee ripple/when you knock the table with your knee’, a prelude, it is suggested, to leaving, when ‘glasses clear/spoons lose their dash of colour’. 


The third poem ‘Clasp’ seems to portray an afterwards, the speaker cooking with garlic and noticing, ‘One of the first absences … a missing scent’. There is an incredible precision in this poet’s descriptions, such as, ‘She scrunches onion paper/pinches a tooth of garlic from its husk’, and her titles further the poems, as here, adding depth to their themes, clasp working as both verb and noun. Here, we have hands at work peeling garlic, sharpening a pencil ‘he enjoyed/yellow and thick as a finger … with his clasp knife’. Now, though, ‘she notices her shadow alone on the walls’. 


Hands feature in other poems. ‘Rescues’ is a tender eulogy to the speaker’s father, his hands used for rescue – of the fallow doe, the pipistrelle, house martin chicks, ‘Birds, shrews, mice/pried from the white portcullis/of the cat’s teeth…’, spiders, a buzzard and, finally, ‘His three daughters/calling to him from their cities/…/saving us each time.’ Hands are watched, explored, used to paint with, make a vase, play piano, cook with, and, crucially, write with. In ‘Manus’, the poem juxtaposes ‘an essay arguing [hands’] evolution for use of weapons’ with someone playing the piano; words on a page propounding a theory set beside ‘your rhythmic hands/bridged for Clair de Lune’. These are the same hands, it is suggested, that the speaker’s ‘skin remembers’ when ‘You tapped time on my spine’. Violence and love-making, angling the aim of a gun or making music, are thus placed together as potentials of human being and doing – yet we are left with the music of love which, ‘altered my rhythm/lifted fine threads/until my blood re-tuned.’ 


In the two ‘Lavinia’ poems, the loss – of not only hands, but tongue – comes to the fore, but you have to know who Lavinia is, for Parker doesn’t patronise her readers. She simply provides a quotation from Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, as epigraph for each poem, so you know it is that Lavinia, the character who is first barbarously raped, then silenced by having her tongue cut out and her hands lopped off. 


‘Following Lavinia’ is a sequence of four poems, three of them titled with a man’s name and the fourth poem called simply ‘Their names’. In each of the first three poems, the speaker reads the play with reference to each of the named men, such as: ‘I read the hunt … sitting at his desk’; ‘I watched the hunt with Paul’. In the final poem, though, the focus is purely on ‘her’: ‘They took her tongue, her hands/so she tried to write with driftwood, sand.’ 


There is a powerful sense created of striving for expression, of valour against the odds, against forces too strong. Parker has a canny way of bringing together tangential parts that point towards meaning – yet nothing is laid on with a trowel. Here, there is the suggestion of struggle, of how hard it is for a woman’s voice to be heard. 


‘Lavinia Writes’, which comes a little later in the collection, picks up the themes again, going for the jugular, the wound itself: ‘I dipped a finger in my mouth/strummed then picked the stitches/in the root of my stolen tongue.’ Most stanzas include ‘I’ and a verb: ‘I tipped …’, ‘I sign …’, ‘I write bright, long sentences over chairs, walls, floors’, the wound being the source: ‘I tipped my head over paper/let my words pump, breach the dam/fill fibres, glut pores.’ The theme of being without a voice, without dexterity of expression, carries its horrors, but finding voice despite the obstacles is what triumphs, what heals: ‘I tear more, free more/until I am fluent’. 


Fiona Owen 


A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council. 


Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I recently had a conversation with poet Elizabeth Parker in which I mentioned that post-it notes are a reviewer’s greatest ally. They’re a tool that can work brilliantly, but also have their fallibilities. With In Her Shambles, I ended up needing almost as many post-it notes as pages, as every poem contained lines to call me back, and make me want to re-absorb their power.

Parker is a master of shimmering last lines, drawing you quietly to a crescendo – a moment of thrill or unease. In each case, the final few words lie in wait, ready to tilt you off kilter, steadied only by the surety of Parker’s pen.

In Lasagne, the making of a meal represents a deeply rooted love affair, in which the ending stanza speaks volumes: “I peg pasta/ between fingers and thumbs/ lay it down for him.”

In Lavinia Writes, a eulogy of sorts to Shakespeare’s ill-fated character from ‘Titus Andronicus’, that ultimate declaration is a shout of rebellion, as the silenced victim, her tongue cut out, finds a way to share her anger by unpicking the stitches of her wound: “I tear more, free more/ until I am fluent.”

Elegantly unexpected word pairings heighten the readers’ awareness of the world Parker inhabits, where, with the precision of a botanist annotating slides, the poet describes sensations and experiences with tender familiarity.

In Rescues, she paints a portrait of her father through an itemised list of the creatures she’s witnessed him save, from pipistrelle bats to his trio of daughters. With each we’re given a sense of strength and compassion, portrayed deftly through descriptions like “black fruits he gently unpeeled/ to show us wings laced with limb.”

A passion for family and friends bobs surfacewards throughout, along with a respect for personalities from literature and history. Parker seems drawn to strong women who have been badly wronged, as well as to the stubborn savagery of the natural world, from brambles splitting bin bags, to the rivers she describes as representing members of her inner circle: “My aunt’s river grazes its banks/ and widens./ Rocks are loosed to salt her river.”

Sensual and elemental, this is a skilful collection that murmurs of emotions heaving just out of sight and on the edge of hearing. Parker seems to have no qualms about exposing her own vulnerabilities, which makes her work all the more breathtaking. In Her Shambles is a celebration of women, families and nature, astonishing in its originality while offering up disarmingly recognisable views.

Through reading it you may learn to see your own surroundings with fresh eyes. But the magic of this collection is that it’s likely you’ll catch a reflection of yourself, and find yourself wondering how, exactly, this poet knew.

User Reviews

Sorry there are no reviews yet for this book